The Chariot Race

Part of the Horse exhibition.

An ancient Greek engraving of a young woman on a chariot pulled by four horses.
Young girl winning chariot race, engraving from red-figure Greek vase.
The Art Archive/Bibliotchque des Arts Dcoratifs/Gianni Dagli Orti

In ancient Greece, one of the most gripping--and dangerous--athletic events for both horses and men was the chariot race, a sport that dates back at least to 700 BC. Spectators gathered to watch as horse teams pulled drivers in two-wheeled carts around a track with hairpin turns at each end.

Chariot races were held in a specially built arena, or hippodrome, with posts marking the turning points. As many as 10 chariots raced at a time, each pulled by two- or four-horse teams.

A Day at the Races

This panel from the Parthenon, the great temple of Athena in Athens, Greece, shows horseback riders celebrating the Great Panathenaea, a religious festival capped by a day of sporting events much like the Olympic Games.

Horse-drawn chariot races were among the most spectacular contests held during the Great Panathenaea. In one form of chariot race, warriors had to leap from a moving chariot, run beside it, and then leap back in. The winner of a four-horse chariot race was awarded 140 ceramic pots full of olive oil, a particularly extravagant prize.

The Golden Rule

One of the oldest existing works on the care and training of horses was written by the Greek historian Xenophon in 350 BC. Xenophon offered tips for mounting a horse, controlling its movements, and even fighting on horseback--at a time in Greek history when saddles and stirrups were still unknown. Like many modern horse trainers, Xenophon also taught that riders should treat their horses with understanding. In dealing with a horse, he wrote, "The one best precept--the golden rule--is never to approach him angrily."

Olympic Sports

Horses became part of the Olympic Games in 684 BC, when four-horse chariot races were held in the hippodrome at Olympia. At today's Olympics, horses and riders display their skill in jumping, dressage, and cross-country competitions.